The late Murray Kempton famously said that “a political convention is not a place where you can come away with any trace of faith in human nature.”
Witty—but wrong. American history suggests we’re entitled to put some faith in political conventions.
In 1787, the constitutional convention that met and deliberated in Philadelphia saved the Union and produced the Constitution of the United States—described by William Gladstone as “the most wonderful work ever struck off at a given time by the brain and purpose of man.” In 1860, the second convention of the Republican party met in Chicago and nominated, on the third ballot, after considerable deliberation, our greatest president, Abraham Lincoln. In 1932, the Democrats convened in Chicago and nominated on the fourth ballot—after a few days in which the balloting was suspended for deliberation—Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Thus, once every three-quarters of a century or so, the delegates to an American political convention deliberate, and their deliberations produce a notable and impressive outcome. It could happen again in 2012. It could fall to the Republican delegates convening in Tampa, after they have cast their committed first ballot vote and failed to produce a majority for any candidate, to act as a real deliberative convention. It could fall to them to use their judgment to select the best possible nominee for their party and the best possible president for their country.
It would be exciting. It would be nerve-wracking. It would be unpredictable. It hasn’t happened in quite a while. But it could happen. And it could be a good thing for the Republican party.
It could happen because it’s quite possible no one will emerge from the January primaries with a commanding lead in the delegate count, or a compelling surge in popular support. Four or more of the existing candidates could then continue to split votes—and delegates—through February and March. It would be even more likely to happen if someone new were to respond to a draft and enter the race belatedly, announcing his entry as early as mid-January or as late as early March—missing some primaries, to be sure, but getting on lots of ballots and getting lots of votes in April, May, and June. In any case, it might well happen that no candidate will have a majority of pledged delegates when Republicans enter the doors of the St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa in late August.
And a deadlocked convention, which then became a deliberative convention, could be a good thing, because most sentient Republicans, and most conscientious conservatives, suspect we can do better than the current field.
It may not happen. The delegates in Tampa may end up doing what delegates at recent conventions have done, rubber-stamping a nominee and serving as props in a TV show. But a rush to judgment by political elites and premature closure of the nominating process hasn’t served Republicans, or conservatives, particularly well in the last several election cycles.
It’s a new political era. Perhaps that era will feature once again a real, deliberative convention—where the delegates, with the ghosts of Lincoln and FDR looking on, choose, on a second or third or fourth ballot, a compelling nominee and a consequential president.